In Praise of the Happy Accident

“When something unexpectedly good comes from what would otherwise be considered a mishap.”¹

A characteristic of art practice is the possibility that the unexpected will be incorporated into it. Artists make connections and use their work to explore the world and not to just display it or their skill in representing it. In this way what we’re all doing is researching. That sounds daunting, but shouldn’t be. Using drawing to better understand the shape of a jug or building and how marks and media can be brought to bear on their representation is research. This isn’t exclusive to art of course.

I want argue for the importance of recognising ‘happy accidents’ in any research activity. I think we can split them into two types: those that exist ‘outside’ the work, and this ‘inside’ or within the work. Let me explain using examples from science:

Outside: We’ve all heard the stories of Isaac Newton being hit on the head by an apple or Archimedes leaping from a bath shouting ‘Eureka’. The first anecdote was the spur to Newton working on a theory of gravity. An accident caused him to catch a glimpse of something important. Granted, he then had to go and do the work, but that apple was an important spur to that research. The Archimedes story is a bit different as had been charged with a problem and was having trouble solving it (read more here), but as he lowered himself into a bath he suddenly realised the solution. This is perhaps less accidental, but it shows how being sensitive to the world, even when not working, can be useful.

Inside: 3M in 1968 developed a low-tack pressure sensitive glue while trying to make a super-sticky glue. Within the company it was called ‘a solution without a problem’, until someone used it to make the Post It note. The glue was a side-effect of ongoing research (like the discovery of Penicillin, which was also accidental). Sometimes our work generates stuff that isn’t what we were after, but that might be useful anyway.

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 11.00.33

My principle point is that it’s important to keep your eyes peeled when going about your daily life as there might be useful stuff happening under your nose. You noticed it. If a cat walks across your paper when you’re doing a mark-making exercise, or you spill red wine on the same sheet, don’t jump to think of them as mistakes. the red wine incident could make you think of pouring ink and moving it around by tipping paper, or blowing it. Does sponging the wine off make a mark you could use? That sort of thing.

It’s also worth going back through old work. Look for things that you missed or didn’t carry forward. As you learn you should be changing the way you look at the world. Perhaps that mark-making exercise you did at the beginning of Drawing 1 has some potential that you overlooked at the time.

Neither of these kind of accident do the work for you, but if you do spot and exploit them they’re almost bound to bring something original to your work, precisely because you didn’t think of it. That’s one place that ‘creativity’ hides.

¹Urban Dictionary Definition of Happy Accident.


Image Credit: Dorothy Flint, Book Design 1 student.



  1. emmadrye 19 May 2015 at 8:41 pm

    Hi Bryan, I think Andrew is doing his PhD on serendipity. He’s nearly there with it and I am sure it will be an interesting read.

  2. Bryan 20 May 2015 at 1:58 pm

    Serendipity in general or applying to a particular field? If I know one thing about PhDs it’s that they need focus.

    1. emmadrye 21 May 2015 at 5:35 pm

      I don’t know the title – I’ll let you know….it will be situated practices I expect.

  3. melindawinter 21 May 2015 at 8:22 am

    I recently have been having glimpses of clarity and have reacted to them as a matter of urgency. I start work at 4AM 5 days a week and I find in my state of need for sleep and getting ready for work ,I think of things … preparring my drawing paper with brightly coloured paint or a need to reserch a particular artist that I had forgotten about. This Blog reminded me how important it is to take note of these glimpes of clarity and to react.

  4. ninahare 23 May 2015 at 8:42 am

    Serendipity works well for writers, too. Once you’ve decided on the subject matter of a story, I find that things bob up all around me; stuff in the street, chance remarks, newspaper headings, pictures, movies…all pointed directly at me, widening my ideas and giving me further insight into what I want to say.

  5. bryaneccleshall 23 May 2015 at 1:59 pm

    I’d hoped for a better response to this, if I’m honest. I’m really troubled that a lot of students (and artists in the real world, too) seem preoccupied with seeing everything as coming from themselves while perversely thinking that the world is ‘inspiring’. It’s the world that supplies up with much of the content for our work. The ability for the artist / writer to keep their eyes and ears open to stuff that’s happening and to make connections seems of paramount importance. I’ve been banging on at this theme for much of my time as an OCA blogger and yet not many people seem interested. Am I wrong? Is it all about self-expression? The Ego? Is art really just therapy for most people?

  6. Dorothy Flint 24 May 2015 at 1:14 pm

    I didnt reply before becaquse i can never find how to. That image was just a bit of fun, but some of the blots can be quite beautiful and i dont want to touch them. I find so much that can be used, like shadows, shapes of things, a glimpse of a narrow bit of window seen through a door, reflections, to mention just a few and have used them in illustrations. It becomes compulsive. Dont despair, keep on banging.

  7. annetteoca 25 May 2015 at 8:44 pm

    I recently went to a mark making and drawing workshop for textile artists. The tutor encouraged us to make a whole bunch of marks with a variety of media whilst having a kitchen objects still life arrangement in front of us. She also made us look away when drawing. I’m sure everyone has done this or something similar. Then she made us turn over the work and cut sections out of the back at random. I was delighted by the resulting compositions and got so much out of looking at the resulting ‘drawings’ and working from them.
    I also love to take photographs of stuff that makes art such as random paint marks on walls, sculpture like rubbish and so on. The art is there – I think we simply steal it.

  8. annetteoca 27 May 2015 at 11:13 pm

    I hadn’t Bryan but I have now. Thanks this is really interesting. I was recently in Malta and the walls of the city of Valletta are inscribed with hundreds of years of graffiti scratched into the stone. Point your camera or indeed your eyes anywhere and there’s a fantastic image. It got me working on the notion of text and textiles ( I am a textiles student/ maybe migrating to fine art). Discolouration and rust on stone was also really arresting. I have been there several times before but really only looked at it this time. Serendipity or the time being right maybe?

    1. bryaneccleshall 28 May 2015 at 9:24 am

      A perfect example of what I’m talking about. If you think of Malta as being your portfolio of work – bear with me – and the first visit was you making the work. Now, with experience and perhaps a little more wisdom you have the chance to revisit that work, you see something in it that had eluded your inexperienced eye…

      If you do migrate to Fine Art, keep thinking how the skills you already have can be applied.

  9. Bernadette 1 September 2017 at 1:23 pm

    I am very late to the party commenting on this but thought I would as I happened to see it when looking at some more recent posts.
    The idea of accidents being ‘allowed’ in one’s work was new to me, but now seems obvious – why not. The skill is in identifying it I guess. The mark doesn’t have to come from someone’s hand. Or it could but be unintentional. I would worry that could get a bit gimmicky and not thought through – but I guess it depends on how you use it and if you take and run with or it gives you other ideas. You related it to much bigger matters – (it doesn’t get much bigger than discovering gravity.) This is a bit like the mention in another a blog post -21 talks and 24 days later about the choice of Melbourne, Australia as an important city – a happy accident. It also reminds me of what they tell you in business books – be alert to opportunities as and when they arrive even if they’re not in the business plan. More relevant – it also struck a cord, as having quickly taken a photo when being called away from the beach this summer, I found later had what I considered to be a perfectly composed drawing/artwork of the beach pebbles and seaweed. Its not a photographer’s shot just a snapped image. Its as if someone composed it, the balance, contrast, interest use of colour can’t be improved.


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